JIT Learning Using Expert Systems

Chris Gammell is a guy that should need no introduction around these parts. He’s a co-host on The Amp Hour, and the guy behind Contextual Electronics, a fabulous introduction to electronics and one of the best ways to learn KiCad. If you want to talk about the pedagogy of electronics, this is the guy you want.

Chris’ talk at the Hackaday | Belgrade conference was on just that – the pedagogy of electronics. Generally, there are two ways to learn how to blink an LED. The first, the bottom-up model taught in every university, is to first learn Ohm’s law, resistance, current, voltage, solve hundreds of resistor network problems, and eventually get around to the ‘electrons and holes’ description of a semiconductor. The simplest semiconductor is a diode, and sometime in the sophomore or junior year, the student will successfully blink a LED.

The second, top-down method is much simpler. Just wire up a battery, resistor, switch, and LED to a breadboard. This is the top-down model of electronics design; you don’t need to know everything to get it to work. You don’t need to do it with a 555, and you certainly don’t have to derive Maxwell’s equations to make something glow. Chris is a big proponent of the top-down model of learning, and his Belgrade talk is all about the virtues of not knowing everything.

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KiCAD BOM Management

KiCAD remains a popular tool for designing PCBs and other circuits, and with good reason: it’s versatile and it’s got pretty much everything needed to build any type of circuit board you’d want. It also comes with a pretty steep learning curve, though, and [Jeff] was especially frustrated with the bill of materials (BOM) features in KiCAD. After applying some Python and Kivy, [Jeff] now has a BOM manager that makes up for some of KiCAD’s shortcomings.

Currently, the tool handles schematic import, like-component consolidation, and a user-managed parts database that can be used to store and retrieve commonly used parts for the future. All of the changes can be saved back to the original schematic. [Jeff] hopes that his tool will save some time for anyone who makes more than one PCB a year and has to deal with the lack of BOM features native to KiCAD.

[Jeff] still has some features he’d like to add such as unit tests, a user guide, and a cleaner user interface. What other features are you anxious to see added to KiCAD?

This script is a great tool for anyone who has had similar frustrations. KiCAD is popular to modify and expand, too: there have been tools for mechanical CAD export, a parts-generator and cost-tracker, and an Eagle to KiCAD converter if you’re thinking of making the switch.

KiCad Traducido al Español

KiCad ya es una gran herramienta para la captura esquemática y el diseño de PCB, pero el software sólo funciona si es posible utilizarlo. Para los mil millones de personas que no hablan inglés, esto significa que el idioma es la barrera más grande al momento de utilizar el mejor software para desarrollo de hardware. En los últimos meses, [ElektroQuark] ha estado liderando esfuerzos de localización al español de KiCad y estos se encuentran finalmente completados. También ha iniciado un foro de KiCad en idioma español para llevar el desarrollo de software hacia uno de los idiomas más hablado del planeta.

SpanishMientras que ha habido otros intentos por localizar KiCad a otros idiomas, la mayoría de estos proyectos se encuentran incompletos. En una actualización de KiCad hace algunos meses, la localización al español ya contaba con algunas cadenas ya traducidas, pero no demasiadas. Los esfuerzos de [ElektroQuark] han acercado KiCad a millones de hablantes nativos de español, no solo algunos de sus menús.

El español es la segunda lengua más hablada del planeta, mientras que el inglés es la tercera. Teniendo en cuenta solamente este hecho, parece absurdo que casi todas las herramientas de software para capturas esquemáticas y diseño de PCB sean localizados sólo al chino o al inglés. Los esfuerzos de [ElektroQuark] por localizar KiCad al español son un gran avance para un ya impresionante software.

StickerBOM for KiCad

When boards were larger and components mostly through hole, designers could put a lot of information on the silk legend – reference designator, values, additional text and so on. But with surface mount components becoming smaller and board real estate at a premium, modern boards do not have a lot of information marked on the silk layer. If you are building and distributing a short run of kits, perhaps for a round of beta testing, then [Adam Greig]’s StickerBOM python script for KiCad can be really handy. StickerBOM is a KiCad BOM exporter designed for people stuffing boards by hand. It generates a PDF for printable sticky labels, where each label reflects one BOM line from a supplier. You then stick these labels on the bags from your supplier, and they show you where the parts go.

The labels get printed with the reference designator, quantity, component value, package, vendor and part number. It also adds a drawing of the PCB with the relevant parts highlighted for easy location identification. To use it, schematic symbols must have the supplier field and part number added. The script can be run from the command line, or from the BOM manager in eeschema. The script is set up for Avery L7164 labels, but this setting can be changed. It’s still work in progress so there’s a couple of bugs to be aware of. It cannot process the bottom layer of the board, and the result is only as good as the data you provide. And if you have a large board with components spread all over, the resultant graphic printed on the label may not be ideal.

We are hoping this, and other scripts such as the Part generator and Cost spreadsheets or the script for mechanical CAD export, get added to future releases of KiCad. The KiCad version 5 Developer’s road map document already has some really nice feature additions in the works.

Beautiful and Bizarre Boards

An odd board (piezo coupler), fabbed by OSHPark.

Recently I’ve been getting curious about interesting PCB shapes. In the past I’ve always used simple Polygons, perhaps rounding out the corners to make the design a little more aesthetically pleasing. The board to the right was my introduction to the possibilities of oddly shaped boards. It’s designed to couple with a piezo buzzer (used as an actuator). I’ve been planning to have it fabricated out of FPC (Flexible Printed Circuits), but with fabrication being so cheap I sent it to OSHPark to see what they’d make of it. OSHPark doesn’t have hard specs around internal routing, but in my experience they’re up to try anything (and they’re quality is always great). The width of the prongs on the PCB shown is 5mm. I figured it was a risk, and that it was likely the FR4 could break, but it came back great!

This has led me to the realization that my boards could look much more exciting than they do currently, and that our highly optimized modern PCB fabrication process provides a lot of room for experimentation. This article will discuss some of the options available when creating non-traditional PCBs.

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Developed on Hackaday : HaDge update – it’s a HACK

Work on HaDge – the Hackaday con badge, continues in bits and spurts, and we’ve had some good progress in recent weeks. HaDge will be one conference badge to use at all conferences, capable of communicating between badges.

Picking up from where we left off last time, we had agreed to base it around the Atmel D21, a 32-bit ARM Cortex M0+ processor. To get some prototype boards built to help with software development, we decided to finish designing the HACK before tackling HaDge. HACK is a project that [Michele Perla] started that we have sort of assimilated to act as the prototyping platform for HaDge. We wanted a compact micro-controller board and hence opted for the SAM D21E – a 32 pin package with 26 IO’s.

[Michele Perla] had earlier designed HACK based on the larger 32 pin SAM D21G and used Eagle to hack-brddraw the schematic and layout. Using the Eagle to KiCad script, he quickly converted the project and got on to making the board layout. I took up the rear guard, and worked on making his schematic (pdf) “pretty” and building up a schematic library of symbols. While [Michele] finished off the board layout, I worked on collecting STEP models for the various footprints we would be using, most of which I could get via 3dcontentcentral.com. The few I couldn’t were built from scratch using FreeCAD. The STEP models were converted to VRML using FreeCAD. Using [Maurice]’s KiCad Stepup script, we were able to obtain a complete STEP model of the HACK board.

HACK is now ready to go for board fabrication and assembly. We plan to get about 20 boards made and hand them out to developers for working on the software. The GitHub repository has all the current files for those who’d like to take a look – it includes the KiCad source files, PDFs, gerbers, data sheets and images. The board will be breadboard compatible and also have castellated pads to allow it to be soldered directly as a module. Let us know via group messaging on the HACK project page if you’d like to get involved with either the software or hardware development of HaDge.

In a forthcoming post, we’ll put out ideas on how we plan to take forward HaDge now that HACK is complete. Stay tuned.

Eagle to KiCad made easy

One barrier for those wanting to switch over from Eagle to KiCad has been the lack of a way to convert existing projects from one to the other. An Eagle to KiCad ULP exists, but it only converts the schematic, albeit with errors and hence not too helpful. And for quite some time, KiCad has been able to open Eagle .brd layout files. But without a netlist to read and check for errors, that’s not too useful either. [Lachlan] has written a comprehensive set of Eagle to KiCad ULP scripts to convert schematics, symbols and footprints. Board conversion is still done using KiCad’s built in converter, since it works quite well.

Overall, the process works pretty well, and we were able to successfully convert two projects from Eagle. The entire process took only about 10 to 15 minutes of clean up after running the scripts.

The five scripts and one include file run sequentially once the first one is run. [Lachlan]’s scripts will convert Eagle multi sheet .sch to KiCad multi sheets, place global and local net labels for multi sheets, convert multi part symbols, build KiCad footprint modules and symbol libraries from Eagle libraries, create a project directory to store all the converted files, and perform basic error checking. The Eagle 6.xx PCB files can be directly imported to KiCad. The scripts also convert Via’s to Pads, which helps with KiCad’s flood fill, when Via’s have no connections – this part requires some manual intervention and post processing. There are detailed instructions on [Lachlan]’s GitHub repository and he also walks through the process in the video.

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